As the days count down to the April 1 budget deadline, Governor Andrew Cuomo is making clear to lawmakers that the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government has shifted.
Cuomo told legislators, in no uncertain terms, that he was prepared to employ a new tool discovered during the reign of his predecessor, Governor David Paterson. Paterson and his top aides interpreted a prior court decision to mean that the governor has the power, when the budget is late, to submit his entire plan in a spending extender, then force the legislature to either accept his budget or shut the government down.
"You really disagree, and you really want to stop it, then you shut down the government," Cuomo, who had experience with government closure while HUD Secretary under President Clinton in the 1990s, said recently. That episode did not work out well for Congress, which was blamed for the shutdown.
So far, the governor has not had to use his powerful new tool, Senate and Assembly leaders agreed to a state budget framework that includes most of the budget cuts that the governor is seeking.
Steve Greenberg, spokesman for Siena College polling, said a new survey shows that, theoretically, votes would support Cuomo's use of the threatened dramatic measure. Sixty-seven percent of respondents said they'd prefer the legislature pass Cuomo's budget in its entirety, rather than shut the government down.
Greenberg said lawmakers knew the only leverage they had with the governor was to try to win changes to the budget before the April 1 deadline. They did have a modicum of success. They gained $270 million dollars in school aid restorations, more money for public colleges and human services and greater say over which prisons will have to close to shrink the system by 3,700 beds.
But, Greenberg said, just the threat of having the power to force the legislature to pass his budget might work better for Cuomo than actually having to carry it out. If Cuomo were to expend his political capital by jamming his budget through, lawmakers might not be so inclined to cooperate on major items remaining in the session.
"There a lot of other contentious issues that still need to be dealt with this year," said Greenberg, including rent regulation reform, a property tax cap and ethics reform.
The governor wants to win agreements on those issues and other major items like legalizing gay marriage, and he will no longer have the power to force lawmakers to agree with him. Cuomo, in a jovial mood at the agreement announcement, praised Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and said he hoped the three had developed "a template for a new era of cooperation and productivity."
"I'm hoping that this sprit of love and euphoria that I feel is infectious and grows and continues," said Cuomo, with a laugh.
For now, Cuomo has the best of both worlds. Simply the threat of forcing the legislature to pass his budget after April 1 helped him win the early agreement, and with any luck the legislature will actually approve the budget by midnight Thursday, without the governor even having to raise his voice.